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A Tribute to Dave Ahlgren

- by Carrol Henderson, Minnesota DNR Non-Game Program

Dave Ahlgren
Dave Ahlgren

I thought you would want to know that Minnesota's bluebirds, trumpeter swans, the Nongame Wildlife Program staff, and I, among many others, lost a very special friend yesterday. Dave Ahlgren passed away after a long and courageous battle with prostate cancer. Dave was one of those "once in a lifetime" personal and professional friends who epitomized the "bluebird of happiness" that he did so much to help. I guess you could say he was the "Dave of Happiness."

I first met Dave in about 1982 when I was working on revising my old eight-page Birdhouses in Minnesota booklet and developing it into the first "Woodworking for Wildlife" book. I had learned about Dave's carpentry skills when he was a volunteer at the Minnesota Zoo. I had asked him if he would be willing to review some of the birdhouse designs that had been proposed by various "experts" for the various species involved like purple martins, bluebirds, and wood ducks. He didn't like the designs...they looked like they had been designed by a biologist. He suggested improving the designs by eliminating as many angled cuts as possible, and converting many of the plans into a simple "one-board" design. It was a stroke of genius that laid the groundwork for one of the most successful birdhouse books in the country.

When I wanted to expand our Nongame Wildlife Program's bluebird conservation efforts statewide at the urging of Dick Peterson, I decided that we needed bluebird workshops in each of our six DNR regions. I figured that we needed one hundred Peterson bluebird houses to distribute to the workshop participants. I called Dave and asked if he could make some bluebird houses for the Nongame Wildlife Program. He said "sure." Then he said, "How many?" When I said 600, I recall there was a temporary silence; then Dave said "sure." Those initial workshops helped give rise to the Bluebird Recovery Program which is now looked on as one of the most successful in the nation. Since learning how to make Peterson bluebird houses in quantity, Dave has cut out about 80,000 bluebird houses. Everywhere I go in Minnesota, there are Peterson bluebird houses--probably made by Dave. I think we have more nest boxes per mile of highway than any other state in the nation. Dave has made a difference.

When I began planning the Minnesota trumpeter swan restoration project in the early to mid '80s, I told Dave that I was planning to go to Alaska to get eggs from swan nests in central Alaska. I had countless people offer to be a volunteer assistant on those trips, but Dave had a special advantage. He was a pilot for Northwest Airlines and he knew the vice-president, Bill Wren. He was able to get first class seats, for the comfort of the eggs, of course. In June of 1986, 1987, and 1988, Dave and I made trips to central Alaska with US Fish and Wildlife Service pilot Rod King to collect swan eggs. What great adventures! Dave was an invaluable partner as we collected eggs. At the research cabin on Minto Lake, he boiled water to put in hot water bottles to keep the eggs warm as we collected them. On one occasion when Dave was with Rod and I to collect eggs, we landed on a small lake, taxied to the nest, and we got the eggs. Meanwhile the wind died. Rod backed us up to one shore and attempted to take off, but as we reached the other end of the lake, the plane failed to break free from the surface tension of the water, and he shut the plane down. We thudded into the opposite shore. We tried again; with the same results. Then he explained that this lake had changed from a three-person lake to a two person lake and that one of us had to go. I lost. Rod dropped me off with a sack lunch on a tiny island in the middle of the lake and explained that I should be safe from the bears there. Just before they taxied off, Dave threw me a sleeping bag, and I remember Dave's big grin as they departed. Rod did manage to find me again.

Anyway, Dave helped collect the Trumpeter Swan eggs, and he helped with the swan releases at the Tamarac National Widlife refuges. In more recent years, he and Jan have made regular trips to Monticello to see the growing flock of trumpeter swans at the home of Jim and Shiela Lawrence. He was, once again, an integral part of a great widlife success. Wildlife conservation is a long term, lifelong commitment, and Dave saw this project through from its beginnings to the wonderful success that it is today.

When I got the idea to do a book on bird feeding, Wild About Birds, who did I see but Dave. He had some great ideas on some very functional and easy-to-build bird feeders. The Wild About Birds book has much of Dave in it. He knew what worked, and he was happy to share his ideas with others. Dave was a very common-sense type of person who interspersed every conversation with abundant smiles and nonstop humor. He was uplifting to all who knew him.

Dave and Jan believed in practicing wildlife conservation around their own home. They have lots of bird feeders with lots of bird traffic, along with a few deer and other assorted critters. And their tree, shrub, and flower plantings are a model for the concept of "landscaping for wildlife." In fact, Rebecca Kolls did one of her television shows at Dave and Jan's home a couple years ago featuring the landscaping for wildlife theme. Dave became a regular TV personality. There were other programs on his bluebird accomplishments featured on KARE-11 TV with interviews by Ken Speake. He was also a recipient of the "Eleven Who KARE" awards because of his volunteer efforts to help bluebirds.

Dave was a continuing inspiration throughout the 25 years that I knew him, and hopefully I can continue to pass on that uplifting lifestyle to others. His unselfish manner, humility and vast knowledge were also special because he was so dedicated to helping wildlife. I gave him his own carousel with our DNR bluebird conservation program and he did many seminars and programs for civic groups and school children throughout the metro area. Dave was a pilot. He knew the beauty of flight, and he made a difference in helping put wild birds like swans and bluebirds back in the sky that had been missing for many years. The bluebirds should be back any day now. Each returning bluebird is an opportunity to remember Dave's legacy and to realize that we each have an opportunity to be an inspiration to others and to make a difference for wildlife. As for Dave, I shall be checking for any cedar sawdust sifting down from above. I'm sure he has already checked to see if they have a really nice woodshop in Heaven where he can make some Peterson bluebird houses for Heaven's backyard.

Note: Dave Ahlgren of Minnesota passed away on March 13, 2007 at the age of 67. See obituary below

Rainbox. Photo by EA Zimmerman
One of 80,000 boxes made by Dave Ahlgren. Photo by Bet Zimmerman
Photo by Wendell Long
Photo by Wendell Long.
STILLWATER, MINN. David L. Ahlgren, age 67, died on Tuesday, March 13, 2007. Dave fought a spirited two-year battle with prostate cancer. He was born on Nov. 19, 1939. He was a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Madison. David joined the Wisconsin Air National Guard as a pilot, then in 1965 began a 29-year career as a pilot with Northwest Airlines. Later, U.S. Air Force duties included serving as liaison officer for U.S. Air Force Academy, retiring as lieutenant colonel. He will miss his 50-year class reunion from Madison West High School this summer. He played in the Madison Scouts Drum and Bugle Corps and the UW Marching Band. Dave enjoyed a wide range of volunteer activities over the years: while living in Burnsville, he was active in local politics and the Burnsville Fire Muster. He was also a Minnesota Zoo volunteer for five years, contributed volunteer efforts with the Minnesota DNR Non-Game Division, helped collect trumpeter swan eggs in Alaska, and aided in development of woodworking for wildlife books on bird houses and feeders, most noted for having produced somewhere over 85,000 Peterson style bluebird houses which were instrumental in bringing back this beautiful songbird. David presented many programs on bluebirds to elementary schools, nature centers, and many bird stores, in addition branched out to programs on bird feeding to a variety of garden clubs and other groups. He was active with Minnesota Transportation Museum for several years, including working as a licensed brakeman and conductor, and two years as superintendent of the MTM Railroad Division. He also volunteered at Warner Nature Center. He combined his love of woodworking with his love of nature, especially birds, bird feeders, and bird houses. Dave's humor, enormous energy and enthusiasm for many different activities, touched countless lives, and he will be sorely missed by many. He is survived by his loving wife, Jan, of 34 years; sister, Peggy Ahlgren of Spring Green; uncle, Gilbert; aunt, Lillie; many cousins and countless friends. He was preceded in death by his parents, Dr. Henry L. and Harriet Ahlgren of Madison. Special thanks to the wonderful doctors and nurses at MOHPA, and for the special care given by the angels at The Gathering. A celebration of David's life will be Friday, March 16, 2007, 11 a.m. at TRINITY LUTHERAN CHURCH, 115 North 4th Street, Stillwater, Minn. Visitation will be held one hour prior to service. Burial will be at Fort Snelling National Cemetery. Memorials to Lakeview Hospice, or Friends of Crex Meadows, or Trumpeter Swan Society, or donor's choice. Arrangements have been made with Bradshaw Funeral Home, 2800 Curve Crest Boulevard, Stillwater, Minn. (651) 439-5511

Each returning bluebird is an opportunity to remember Dave's legacy and to realize that we each have an opportunity to be an inspiration to others and to make a difference for wildlife.
- Carrol Henderson on Dave Ahlgren


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